Responding to Universalists
niversalists claim that many Bible translations have mistranslated “hell.” One example is in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Before reading the parable it is important to know about the Hebrew word “Sheol,” and the Greek word “Hades.”
The word “Sheol” appears 65 times in 63 verses in the Old Testament. The word refers to the concealed place of the dead. It does not refer to the place of the decaying body, but of the soul in its conscious afterlife.1
In some English translations, Sheol has been translated into three different words: “pit,” “grave,” and “hell.” Many Universalists will claim that the original meaning of Sheol is simply the “grave” and that translators chose to translate it “hell” in select verses because they wrongly believed that a place of eternal torment existed. This is completely untrue.
In today’s society we often use “hell” to refer to the place or state in which sinners will be eternally tormented and separated from God. It can also be synonymous with agony, pain, and torture. This is not the original meaning of the word hell. Hell comes from the old Saxon word “Heele” or “Hele,” which means to “hide, cover, or conceal.”2 This is why Sheol was at one time translated as hell (to mean “the concealed place of the dead”). Around this same time “grave” was used in two different ways. Not only could “grave” mean the burial place of a dead body like it does today, but it could also refer to the concealed place of the dead. Thus “grave” was also an acceptable translation of Sheol because it was synonymous with hell (as well as “pit”).
We can see that these words were at one time synonymous by comparing verses from the King James Version (first published in 1611) with that of the Geneva Bible (first published in 1560). Here is Psalm 16:10 from both translations:
For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. (KJV)
For thou wilt not leave my soul in the grave: neither wilt thou suffer thine holy one to see corruption. (Geneva Bible)
The King James Version translates Sheol as “hell” while the Geneva Bible translates Sheol as “the grave.” The two words are synonymous and both translations are correct. It is very important not to confuse the “grave” that is synonymous with “hell” with the “grave” that refers to the place where a person’s body is buried and rots. The Hebrew word “Keber” is used to refer to the sepulchre, tomb, or burial place for the body. Sheol is never used for this purpose. What this means is that both “Keber” and “Sheol” can be translated “grave.” Unfortunately this can make it very difficult for some to notice the difference. Take for example the following two passages from the KJV:
And whosoever toucheth one that is slain with a sword in the open fields, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days. (Numbers 19:16)
Drought and heat consume the snow waters: so doth the grave those which have sinned. (Job 24:19)
If one is not careful they will conclude that both verses are referring to the same type of “grave.” This is not the case. It is unfortunate for us today that some translations did this, because it confuses a lot of people who cannot read the text in Hebrew or do not have a Lexicon available. If the translators had known that this confusion would have occurred in our day, then I’m sure that they would have left Sheol untranslated to avoid any ambiguity (as many translations do today). Here are the same two verses with their Hebrew words for “grave” left untranslated:
And whosoever toucheth one that is slain with a sword in the open fields, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a KEBER, shall be unclean seven days. (Numbers 19:16)
Drought and heat consume the snow waters: so doth SHEOL those which have sinned. (Job 24:19)
Now it is clear that these verses are not referring to the same type of “grave” at all. The first refers to a place where a dead body is placed to decay, while the second refers to the abode of the dead consuming those who have sinned. Many Universalists will speak as if “grave” can only refer to the burial place of a body. They will incorrectly conclude that Sheol has been translated inconsistently, and therefore something must be “sinfully wrong” and we have been fooled into believing that the Bible teaches about a place of eternal torment. This is simply untrue. And it can mislead those who are not aware that at one time both words had synonymous meanings.
(NOTE: Sheol is never used in the plural form, no one ever touches a Sheol, and there is never any mention of an individual having his own Sheol.)
When you look at the occurrences of Sheol in the Old Testament you find that it does not always distinguish between the righteous and the unrighteous. The word itself seems to only refer to the abode of the dead in general. Both the righteous,
And all [Jacob's] sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into Sheol unto my son morning. (Genesis 37:35)
O that thou wouldest hide me in Sheol, that thou wouldest keep me secret, until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me! (Job 14:13)
and the unrighteous,
The wicked shall be turned into Sheol, and all the nations that forget God. (Psalm 9:17)
Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into Sheol: for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them. (Psalm 55:15)
You cannot find evidence of eternal torment in the meaning/definition of the word “Sheol.” Where you find it is in the consistent them in the Old Testament that the future state of a person’s soul is a direct result of their moral standing before God in this life. “The wicked is driven away in his wickedness: but the righteous hath hope in his death” (Proverbs 14:32). “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). What we find when we study the Old Testament is that the righteous are redeemed from Sheol,
For thou wilt not leave my soul in Sheol; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. (Psalm 16:10)
I will ransom them from the power of Sheol; I will redeem them from death… (Hosea 13:14a)
while the unrighteous are not redeemed from Sheol,
Let me not be ashamed, O LORD; for I have called upon thee: let the wicked be ashamed, and let them be silent in Sheol. (Psalm 31:17)
For Sheol cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness. (Isaiah 38:18)
The Old Testament is clear that only those counted righteous by God can have any hope in death.
Jewish scholars began to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek around the third century BC. This Greek translation is known as the Septuagint. During this time the Hebrew “Sheol” was translated to the Greek “Hades,” which means “unseen” (”the unseen abode of the dead”). ”Hades” also appears 11 times in the New Testament. Any time the word “Hades” appears in the Bible it is referring to Sheol.
Like Sheol, Hades is never used in reference to the burial place of a dead body. A perfect example of this fact is found in Acts 2:25-29:
For David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved: Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope: Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell(%u1F85δης, Hades), neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou shalt make me full of joy with thy countenance. Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre (μνημα, mnema) is with us unto this day.(Original language added by the author.)
In the Bible, Hades always refers to Sheol, and never any other place. The word Hades can be found in Greek mythology in reference to the underworld where all mortals go. It is never used in this way in the Bible. Jesus said, “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of Hades and of death” (Revelation 1:18). Jesus was not claiming to hold they keys to a place that existed in Greek mythology. He was declaring that he holds the keys to Sheol.
When reading the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, some translations will say that the rich man died and was burried and was then taken to hell (Luke 16:23). If your definition of hell is the lake of fire and brimstone (the final and eternal place of torment for sinners), then this is not where the rich man is. The rich man is in Hades/Sheol. What we learn in the New Testament is that Hades is a place for the wicked prior to final judgement in hell. We know that Hades is not the same place as the lake of fire because Hades is thrown into the lake of fire in Revelation 20:
“And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and Hades delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire” (vv. 20:13-15).
In the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man we learn that Hades/Sheol is a place for the wicked where the torment of hell has already begun.
In summary, translating Sheol and Hades as something other than hell can cause grave problems to Bible readers. It has done just that for those who believe in Universalism.
- MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Bible Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2005. p. 65
Notice MacArthur states that the english word “grave” can refer “either to the body in its decaying form or to the soul in its conscious afterlife”. He does not mean that Sheol refers to both. What he is saying is that “grave” can be a translation of “keber” and/or “Sheol” which have two completely different meanings.
- Sabine, James. Universal Salvation Indefensible. Boston: Ezra Lincoln, 1825. p. 61